Bryggen, the old wharf of Bergen, is a reminder of the town’s importance as part of the Hanseatic League’s trading empire from the 14th to the mid-16th century. Many fires, the last in 1955, have ravaged the characteristic wooden houses of Bryggen. Its rebuilding has traditionally followed old patterns and methods, thus leaving its main structure preserved, which is a relic of an ancient wooden urban structure once common in Northern Europe. Today, some 62 buildings remain of this former townscape.
© Erik K Veland
In its present form, following the 1702 fire, the harmonious ancient quarter of Bryggen illustrates the use of space in a district of Hanseatic merchants. It is a type of northern fondaco unequalled by even Lübeck or Novgorod.
This part of the town with its traditional wooden buildings perpetuates the memory of one of the oldest large trading port of northern Europe, and the only one outside the Hanseatic League whose original structures remain within the city limits and cityscape. Founded in about 1070 by King Olav the Peaceful (Olav Kyrre), the port of Bergen was initially a possession of the old Norwegian aristocracy that had acquired a monopoly on fish trading. The sagas, such as that of King Sverre (c. 1180) already spoke of the Bryggen district as the base of patrician merchants. About 1350, the powerful Hanseatic League gained control of Bergen and a food packing trade was established not long afterwards. The Bryggen district owes its physiognomy to the German colonists. It is characterized by the construction of buildings along the narrow streets running parallel to the docks.
The urban unit revolves around a courtyard (gård), which is common to several three-level wooden houses whose gabled facades and lateral walls are covered with shingles, as are the roofs.
Towards the back of the gård, there is a small warehouse or storeroom (kjellere) of stone which protects the area against fire. This repetitive structure was adapted to the living conditions of the colonists of the Hanseatic trading post. The German merchants, who were bachelors, took up winter residence in the small individual wooden houses, and the storeroom was used as a individual or collective warehouse. A true colony, Bryggen enjoyed quasi-extraterritoriality which continued beyond the departure of the Hanseatics until the creation of a Norwegian trading post in 1754 on the impetus of fishermen and shipowners of German origin.
This district, which bears the traces of social organization of space going back to the 14th century, suffered damage over the centuries, some of the most devastating of which being the fires of 1476 and 1702. It nevertheless retains a medieval appearance owing to the fact that it was always reconstructed in accordance with the original plan and using traditional techniques. In 1955 another fire did extensive damage to the city as a whole, one-third of which was destroyed. Following this last catastrophe, the remaining 58 houses were carefully restored and methodical excavations revealed various levels of occupation, from the 12th to the 18th centuries. On this particular occasion, the variations of the seafront, which contrast with the immutability of the land plot, were studied. Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC